Into The Weeds: Will California Employment Law Protect Medical Marijuana Users?

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Seyfarth Synopsis: A proposed bill would amend California employment discrimination law to protect medical marijuana users.

California—already famous (or infamous) as a sanctuary in the immigration area—could soon become a sanctuary for medical marijuana users. A proposed bill would protect medical marijuana users from employment discrimination.

Currently, California employers can deny employment to users of marijuana, even if the use is to treat a medical condition. As previously reported, in Ross v. Ragingwire, the California Supreme Court need not accommodate medicinal marijuana use, irrespective of the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. Ross reasoned that since the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) does not require employers to accommodate illegal drug use, the employer could lawfully deny employment to individuals using medical marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law.

The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (passed in 2016) codifies this employer prerogative: employers may “maintain a drug and alcohol free workplace.” Health & Safety Code § 11362.45(f).

Now, however, two California legislators have introduced AB 2069, a bill that would amend the FEHA to create a new protected category: marijuana card holders (i.e., medical marijuana users). AB 2069 would “prohibit an employer from engaging in employment discrimination against a person on the basis of his or her status as, or positive drug test for cannabis by, a qualified patient or person with an identification card.” AB 2069 would permit employers to take corrective actions against employees who are impaired on employer premises because of marijuana use. AB 2069 also would permit employers to deny employment “if hiring the individual or failing to discharge the employee would cause the employer to lose a monetary or licensing-related benefit under federal law or regulations.”

AB 2069, if enacted, would alter the legal landscape. Employers would need to change their drug testing policies and modify how they treat applicants and employees testing positive for marijuana use. AB 2069 would not, however, protect recreational marijuana users. California employers thus could still enforce drug testing policies against those who use marijuana for non-medicinal purposes.

The new legislation would raise further issues. One would be whether use of medical marijuana could be a reasonable accommodation under disability discrimination laws. Another is whether California’s new law would be preempted by the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”). The CSA still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug—having no recognized medical value and being subject to criminal prosecution regardless of whether state law authorizes its cultivation, distribution, and use. Courts have differed on the preemptive fate of medical marijuana laws. In a 2016 New Mexico case, for example (Garcia v. Tractor Supply Co.), a federal district court held that the CSA preempted a state marijuana law: “To affirmatively require Tractor Supply to accommodate Mr. Garcia’s illegal drug use would mandate Tractor Supply to permit the very conduct the CSA proscribes.” In a 2017 Connecticut case, however, a federal district court held (in Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Co.) that a statute similar in form to AB 2069 was not preempted by the CSA, because the CSA does not specifically regulate the employment relationship.

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